‘We have lost a guardian’: Yashodhara Ray Chaudhuri

She had a radiant smile. Her eyes were always alive and shining. She never indulged in small talk. I believe she never needed to do that. Every time she met someone her mind was alert, her intellect was alive, she talked sensibly and passionately about everything .

I became a member of Soi, the group which Nabaneeta-di formed for women writers and artists, quite late. She called me, almost cajoling me into joining. She used to attract people like a magnet. And in my case, I used to be her fan even before I met her.

When we were schoolchildren we used to read her stories – not only children’s stories, but also her travelogues, and even the anecdotes which came out in newspapers and magazines. My elder sister and I used to pore over her stories about how she and her two daughters rescued a cat from the cornice, with the help of the fire department. Absolutely fantastic true tales. Hilarious.

Her wit and humour were contagious. Everything seemed lighter after you read those autobiographical pieces. And that was what made Nabaneeta-di a household name for Bengali readers. Still, she was primarily an academic, a poet, a serious author. A renowned teacher of Jadavpur University. A feminist. She had a public persona. But she hated to be separated from people by any high wall of intellect, instead, she used her magical humour to endear herself to them.

On second thoughts, though, I also feel that her kind of wit was itself a product of a great intellect. She could master it thoroughly because of her upbringing. The daughter of poet and scholar Narendra Deb and poet Radharani Debi was brought up in an intellectual atmosphere. She was named by none other than Rabindranath Tagore.

Radharani Debi in her own times was a lyric poet and later used a pseudonym, Aparajita Devi, to write satirical and subversive poetry using contemporary slang and English words, making fun of relationship dramas in drawing rooms. Nabaneeta-di’s poetry was her “first source of confidence” (prothom protyoy) in her own words. She always went back to her poetry which was very close to her heart.

Nabaneeta-di wrote about gender and women’s rights with total clarity. She worked and wrote about the Ramayana as retold by Mymensingh poet Chandravati, seeking the gendered perspective in this retelling. Her academic background helped her to crystallise her thoughts in a lucid way. And her humour never clouded her serious pursuit, which was this area of gender – in fact, it honed it.

Soi was the outcome of her serious thinking about women’s rights and the voice of creative women. She wanted to consolidate their voices. Every year she could attract a number of women writers from different parts of India to Kolkata for her seminars at the Soi mela. And she personally mentored younger women writers.

Although women’s rights was Nabaneeta-di’s first love, she was always a humanist. She protested unflinchingly against each and every atrocity against humans. It is fitting to say that she represented liberal educated secular Bengal, and remained a beacon of light for others. In these times when the middle-class Bengali is disappearing, the values she stood for are being fast eroded, and there is a question mark over much of what we grew up cherishing and believing.

I feel we have lost a guardian. We are a little more insecure today than we were yesterday.

‘She lived a life so complete that there is no scope for regret’: Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay

All those authors whose books I grew up reading have left us one by one. Nabaneeta-di’s going was suspended by a thin string of hope and desire, but now her death has become the latest addition to that list.

The last time I met Nabaneeta-di was at a get-together of writers, in December 2017. Her health had been deteriorating over the past few years. She used to move about with the help of a walking stick, and always had a companion. She had a permanent difficulty breathing. I was told this often reached extreme proportions, but she kept writing with a tube up her nose.

She must have written her Sunday column “Balcony of Love” (“Bhalobashar Baranda”), beloved of thousands of readers, in Pratidin newspaper for ten successive years. She never took time off from writing.

On that evening she had told us on arriving at the writers’ gathering, “You know what, I have to straight from the airport to take a flight to Delhi. I won’t be here too long, all I want is a cup of coffee.” She was clearly unwell.

I couldn’t hide my surprise. “Airport? Delhi?” I said. “How long will you be there?” Her answer, “Two days. There’s this lecture I have to give, I’ll be back imemdiately afterwards. I have to go abroad.”

I honestly told myself, here’s a sick person, almost eighty, who’s taken a huge detour on her way to the airport from her home in Hindustan Park just to spend five minutes in the lobby of the Great Eastern hotel in the company of fellow writers. This was an unbelievable life force.

Her passion about her world was incredible. I wouldn’t have considered such a powerful attraction to the realm of writing and literature possible unless I had seen it for myself. Without such a strong relationship to the world of letters, someone who had touched the pinnacle of literary fame would not have travelled so far out of her way just for the pleasure of having a cup of coffee with other writers half her age.

The life of a grasshopper, the life of a singing bird...no, none of this is applicable to Nabaneeta Dev Sen. Sometimes it feels as though she lived a life spanning not 81 but 181 years. She did so much work, travelled so much, spoke at so many seminars, met so many people, remembering them and putting their memories into her writing, honed so many minds as a professor – hers was an immense life, one of enormous accomplishments.

This, then, was Nabaneeta Dev Sen. She loved her mother Radharani Debi deeply, and probably thought of her constantly, a worthy daughter of a worthy mother. Both of them will remain revered figures when it comes to women’s rights in Bengal.

The fact is that although Nabaneeta-di has left us, she lived a life so complete that it is doubtful whether she has left room for even an iota of regret. Even a week before her death she wrote, quoting Sukumar Ray, “Come on fight, come on fight”. She even chided those who were already mourning her before she had died.

Although she had established a literary circle for women named Soi in Calcutta, Nabaneeta-di was never limited to her identity as a woman. Her nature sparkled just the way the sunshine did in her writing. She was forever smiling, and she possessed the rare ability to make fun of herself, which she had turned into an essential weapon in her writing.

Very few women have this quality. Her laugh was so lively that even at 80 she sounded like a teenager. When a person like Nabaneeta-di leaves us, death, strangely, does not seem horrifying. For even death is reduced to being a non-entity when confronted with a life such as hers.